When the devil dislikes the stink of brimstone
It's a bit like the devil disliking the stench of sulfur, but Iran's leaders
now complain that the United States has thrown the Middle East into chaos in
order to reshape the region. That is a man-bites-camel story. With the
exception of the late Yasser Arafat, no one has wielded the weapon of
instability with greater skill than Iran. Israel's disproportionate response to
the July 12 Hezbollah provocation changed the rules of the game in the region.
Whether the players have the presence of mind to exploit the new rules remains
an open question.
Persia's new imperialists have grasped the shift in circumstances far more
quickly than their obtuse counterparts in Washington. The benefits of chaos
most likely redound to the US and Israel, even though squeamishness prevents
Washington from thinking
this way. The Iranians, who are utterly ruthless, profligate in the expenditure
of human blood, and adept at the use of chaos as a strategic weapon, know just
what is afoot.
"Israel is pushing the region into utter chaos," warned the July 15 editorial
in the Foreign Ministry daily Tehran Times, warning that America's backing for
Israel "will harm the whole world, from exacerbation of the global security
situation to undermining the world economy". The newspaper added that "the
attack on Lebanon has already sent oil prices skyrocketing to an unprecedented
high of [US]$78 per barrel". Tehran's instinct remains to respond to the threat
of chaos by raising the ante by reference to the oil weapon.
On July 25, "Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said ... that survival of the
Zionist regime depends on creation of crises and unrest in the Middle East
region," Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency reported. On the same
day, "Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi said that the United States
has thrown the region into chaos to reach its ultimate goal of the new Middle
East," again according to IRNA.
Iran now badly wants a ceasefire so that Hezbollah can claim a draw as a
victory. A few Israeli analysts, although evidently not the government of Prime
Minister Ehud Olmert, understand the game. "In a way, we're playing an old
Palestine Liberation Organization game, to precipitate regional instability and
then try to bring in international intervention," Israeli defense analyst
Michael Oren told the New York Times on July 24. Oren, author of the standard
history of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, advocates an Israeli attack on Syrian
armored divisions stationed on the Lebanese border.
Asefi and Oren understand the sea-change in the Middle East better than the US
or Israeli government. Despite the vehemence of Israel's initial response to
the July 12 incidents, Jerusalem remains squeamish about casualties both among
Israeli soldiers and Lebanese civilians. If the enemy employs civilian sites as
artillery platforms, and civilians decline to leave after due warning, they are
subject to attack. The three-score deaths at Qana are sad, but so were the
180,000 deaths during Lebanon's civil war of 1976-80 and the million deaths
during the Iran-Iraq War, including perhaps 100,000 12-to-14-year-old children
sent by the Khomeinists into the Iraqi minefields. The political-religious
current to which Hezbollah adheres holds the region's record for civilian
deaths, despite British Prime Minister Tony Blair's crocodile tears.
Israel's strongest move on the chessboard would be a massive armored incursion
into Lebanon to crush Hezbollah combined with limited strikes against Syria.
These would be costly in terms of human life, but that is the bill due the
devil for fleeing Lebanon six years ago. The Israeli population longs for
normalcy, and is loath to sacrifice its young men, a fact with which Hezbollah
taunts them. It is far from clear whether Israel will convert a subtle but
fundamental change in the regional balance into a strategic breakthrough.
Washington's best move would be an ultimatum to Tehran with a deadline for
dismantling its nuclear-weapons program, followed by aerial attacks in the
event of non-compliance. Rather than engage the regime of President Bashar
al-Assad in Syria, Washington should take the opportunity to destabilize it.
Rather than attempt to hold together its Frankenstein monster in Iraq, it
should partition the country. Sunnis and Shi'ites already are fleeing mixed
neighborhoods and agglomerating into sectarian strongholds, and a broader
population exchange is the best formula to suppress bloodshed.
In other words, in pursuit of its own best interests, Washington should do
precisely what the Iranian regime fears that it may do. Tehran's paranoia, of
course, runs far ahead of Washington's limited imagination. US Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice is skating in tighter and tighter little circles
attempting to limit the war. The US demand for a 48-hour halt in Israeli
bombing runs in Lebanon to which Israel acquiesced expresses the delusional
hope that Sunni Arab states can be enlisted to oppose Iran and Hezbollah.
Israel, in summary, remains in denial about the failure of its withdrawal
policy since 2000, and Washington remains in denial about the absurdity of its
plan to stabilize the Middle East through democracy. That gives Iran
considerable wiggle room to press ahead from an inherently weakened position.
Given Jerusalem's reluctance to pursue an advantageous position with abandon,
it is not clear how the near-term situation will proceed. A multinational
peacekeeping force would have to confront a highly effective guerrilla force
with a predilection for suicide attacks against foreign soldiers. Unless France
is willing to deploy its Foreign Legion, it is hard to identify prospective
participants. Most likely the situation will drag on well into August, when
Iran must deliver an answer to the United States on its nuclear program.
What cards does Tehran have left to play? It can (1) further destabilize Iraq,
(2) deploy terrorists against Israeli and US targets outside the theater, or
(3) make good on its threat to wield the "oil weapon".
If Washington really had a conspiratorial bent, it would provoke Tehran into
wielding the oil weapon, with the objective of shutting off both Iranian oil
exports and its imports of refined product. The world can sustain a loss of
Iran's 5% of world oil supply much better than Iran can sustain the loss of
100% of its oil revenues. Gasoline prices in the United States probably would
double, ie, to the prevailing level in highly taxed Europe, or the equivalent
of $6 a gallon (about $1.60 a liter). The Western economy would suffer, but
Iran's economy would implode. The Ahmadinejad regime would collapse in short
If Iran could bottle up the Strait of Hormuz, through which two-fifths of world
oil exports pass, the position of the world economy might become desperate, but
it is likely that the US 7th Fleet could prevent this.
In this scenario, Washington would exploit a one-time shock to oil prices to
roll over political obstacles to stringent energy-security measures (rapid
exploitation of domestic energy sources, building nuclear power plants,
gasoline conservation). US consumption would suffer, but a shift from
consumption to investment ultimately would benefit the US economy.
I very much doubt that President George W Bush has either the brains or the
stomach to press America's advantage. To a surprising extent, US leaders still
swim in the goldfish bowl of the Cold War era. It has not quite dawned on them
that the United States, in the parlance of options traders, is "long
volatility". As I wrote on January 26, 2002 (Geopolitics
in the light of option theory):
The elder Bush and
advisers such as James Baker and Bent Scowcroft, schooled in the Cold War,
flinched at the thought of instability ... Their strategic reflex came from the
simple fact that the Soviet Union stood to gain from any instability outside
its immediate sphere of influence. The more chaos, the more options open to the
Kremlin. Now there is no Soviet Union. Russia remains occupied with domestic
problems. China shows little inclination to fish in stormy waters far from its
shores. No power stands to gain from instability other than the United States
itself. American clients and enemies alike can twist and turn in the wind;
America can watch and wait ... Coups, revolutions, wars do not faze Washington.
It can sit back like the council of gods in Homer's Iliad, betting on
the outcome and choosing whom to support and whom to undermine. From the
standpoint of American interest, the more volatility, the more choices and the
This will not be the first time in history that
a power with a potentially winning position frittered away its advantage by
inaction. Germany in the First Morocco Crisis of 1905 comes to mind, when the
opportunity arose to crush France at a moment when Russia was paralyzed by
revolution and Britain had no interest in intervening. The most probable
outcome is that Iran will feel emboldened by the resilience of Hezbollah and
defy the West on the nuclear issue, and that the United States will attack
Iranian nuclear installations this year.